New Purdue offensive coordinator John Shoop has a hard time explaining exactly how the Boilermakers' attack will look this fall. Not because Shoop is being evasive or indecisive. It's just that one major question mark still needs answering first.
"Basically, it all starts with your quarterback, and then you do what your quarterback is best at," Shoop told ESPN.com. "We're trying to figure out who that is going to be."
Indeed, Purdue has one of the most interesting quarterback battles in the Big Ten this spring, as Shoop and first-year head coach Darrell Hazell have to choose from four candidates. Only one, Rob Henry, has any game experience, and he spent most of last year playing positions other than quarterback. The other three -- Austin Appleby, Bilal Marshall and Danny Etling -- are all freshmen; Appleby and Marshall redshirted a year ago, while Ettling enrolled in January.
The Boilers have had only two spring practices thus far and are giving first-team reps to all four players in an attempt to sort things out.
"It's a very even, wide-open race, and the best guy is going to emerge," Appleby said. "We're all competing our tails off right now."
The situation presents a challenge, but Shoop -- who was out of football last year after previously leading the offense at North Carolina from 2007-2011 -- is excited about the possibilities. Each quarterback brings a little something different to the table.
Henry is athletic enough that he's played receiver and tailback at times, while Marshall is also a speedster, if a little thin. Shoop says Etling is unusually poised for a true freshman, while the 6-foot-5 Appleby has the look of a prototypical pocket passer.
"I think I have the ability to make every throw on the field," Appleby said. "And I would say my best attribute would be my brain. My preparation, being cerebral, understanding what's going on and getting my guys lined up. I'm not the fastest guy, but I make up for it with my decision-making and efficiency."
Those are traits that Shoop is looking for in all four of his quarterbacks. He has continually stressed accuracy since coming to West Lafayette.
"Our quarterback has got to be smart and unbelievably accurate," Shoop said. "If he lives the completion-driven life, then I think we've got a shot. He has to have a knack for throwing completions."
That attitude has filtered down into the contenders.
"We have the expectation in our quarterback group that the ball should never hit the ground," Appleby said.
Both Shoop's offense at North Carolina and Hazell's attack at Kent State last season were known for strong rushing games. Shoop said Purdue fans can expect a physical team that will be able to run the ball and set up the play-action passes. He likes what he's seen from Akeem Hunt, who has sprinter's speed and is a guy who "if you give it to him in space, he can turn something little into something big." He thinks redshirt freshman Robert Gregory can complement Hunt as a power back. There is also plenty of competition at receiver.
But the pieces won't really click together until Purdue settles on its starting quarterback. Shoop said he'd like to have a starter in mind by the end of spring but won't lock himself into any timetable.
"I believe this with all my heart: players make decisions on who's going to play," he said.
That decision should define what the Boilers' offense looks like in 2013.